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The Zen of Fish by Trevor Corson

The Zen of Fish (2007)

by Trevor Corson

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4472135,276 (3.92)17



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Quite possibly the best nonfiction I've read this year. Corson uses as the base of his story, the experiences of students in a three month course during 2005, on becoming a sushi chef at the California Sushi Academy in the L.A. area. He includes stories of the various teachers and the restaurant where the academy is housed. In amongst that story, are histories of sushi making, natural histories of the many ingredients used in making sushi and general cultural knowledge of those who have fallen in love with eating sushi. This was a drama of lives, but not in the Iron Chef or reality TV show formula.

It was instructive, and inspiring and frustrating. Instructive and inspiring in that it helped me understand some of the Japanese ways of flavor (in fact, inspired by this book, I made the best sole I've ever managed last night, broiled after a light marinade in sake, soy sauce, rice vinegar, chili oil and sugar - then I used the marinade to pour over my broccoli which I then roasted in the oven. Delicious!), and the possibilities of making sushi for myself. Although it is not a cookbook and contains no recipes, there are good references at the end for those who want to go further with it. Frustrating in that it makes you want to rush out to the nearest decent sushi bar and have the experience of eating well made sushi. I don't think there is one closer than 90 miles away from me, so that won't be happening soon. When I do go though, I will go with a much better understanding of the experience and food. ( )
  MrsLee | Sep 2, 2017 |
An unlikely saga of raw fish and rice
  jhawn | Jul 31, 2017 |
I liked the information about how sushi came from ancient Japan to a restaurant near me. The story of the school and its students was not very interesting to me. Had they been left out, the book would have been 1/3 as long, but I'd have gotten as much from it and liked it better. ( )
  Kitty.Cunningham | Jul 19, 2017 |
The author has no affiliation with the California Sushi Academy. He paid for all sushi consumed in the course of his research

This book made me crave sushi for the entire week that I was reading it. I’m a sushi fiend so this isn’t surprising, but it was a little odd when I was reading at 8 AM. This had been on my wish list for a long time. According to my Library Thing I got a copy in 2009, but I have no recollection of owning it. I know I didn’t read it. So I was happy to find a copy on Amazon for .99 and it also hits “S” on the ABC Challenge.

As much as I enjoyed the info that I learned about sushi through Zoran, Kate, Marcos, Toshi and the others, I enjoyed the people. Although this was a work of documentary non-fiction, it read like a novel at times and the central figures were key. Toshi, the pioneer of American sushi; Kate the unsettled student; Zoran the teacher who is disappeared back to Australia midway through the semester; Takumi the former JPop singer.

Luckily for this sushi fiend, little beyond the author’s explanation of mold’s role in miso and sushi rice made me think twice about the food I devour. I fell in love with sushi at the tale end of my first stint in Japan but never really had a huge interest in its creation. I don’t think I’ve made sushi since a friend’s obon party in August… 2002! This book made me curious about some of the behind the scenes and probably made me a more educated consumer at the sushi bar.

Disease isn’t the only problem. Humans like to eat yellowtail, but yellowtail also like to eat yellowtail.

Of the author’s comments on fish that’s the one I loved the most. I’m picturing carnivorous yellowtail on the sushi bar. I really enjoyed the background on the rice as its status in the US is so different to its standing in Japan.

I’m glad to see the Toshi’s California Sushi Academy is still going (despite an awful website) and to “see” Kate and company on Corson’s site. ( )
  skinglist | Jan 10, 2015 |
Forgive me if this “review” seems an agglomeration of tidbits, but I really enjoy little facts and pieces of information, and this book was riddled with them.

I don’t like fish and frankly the idea of eating it raw, no matter how trendy or gussied up it might be, roils my stomach. Be that as it may, this is a fascinating story, following the ascent (descent?) from a despised, lower class food to one prized by the elite. (Lobster made a similar journey: it was once banned as food for prisoners in jail because it was considered so unseemly and dirty.) The story follows Kate at the California Sushi Academy where, a total neophyte, she has decided to learn how to make Sushi from the masters. It has become less Japanese than international and some of the best chefs are from outside Japan. But, I mean how hard can it be to roll up some raw tuna around rice. Surprise, surprise.

Interestingly, mold is key to Sushi rice and the particular mold strains are guarded in bank vaults or secret caves. The mold is added to rice and eats it with such tremendous speed that if not properly controlled, the heat generated would overheat the incubator. The moldy rice is then mixed with soybeans along with yeast, bacteria and salt. The mush is shoveled into tubs where it sits for months where the digestive enzymes shorten time from 78 million years to seconds and generate amino acids. It’s the enzymes that we want to create glutamate important to human growth, brain development, etc. (Bear with me, I listened to this book on audio and am trying to recreate it from memory.) Anyway, to make a long, but interesting story short, the result is Miso (for more details see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miso). It’s very nutritious and as a paste is used in soups and other dishes including, guess what, sushi. The brown liquid at the edges of the Miso is soy sauce.

Msg, monosodium glutamate, is heralded as one of the miracles of this process and an important ingredient in flavoring. Usually associated with Japanese and Chinese food, it’s ubiquitous ands manufactured by the ton, added to meats, chips, fast food, soups , and many other things (it’s hidden under the name hydrolyzed vegetable protein.)

Western scientists had always assumed that the human tongue can taste only four flavors: sweet, bitter, sour, and salty. Asian scientists insisted there was another they called “tastiness” triggered by amino acids and was represented by the amino acid glutamate (msg) . Recently scientists at UC San Diego have found specific receptors for this flavor.

Fresh water fish can be dangerous when used raw for sushi as it is more likely to contain parasites that cause tapeworm. Salmon and trout, in particular as notorious, and the only way to kill the parasites is by freezing at -31 F for 18 hours or for a week at 0 F. Farmed salmon is not as dangerous filled as it is with PCBs and antibiotics. (Farmed salmon has 5 times the levels of PCB as wild salmon. It takes 3 lbs of ground up fish meal to produce 1 lb of salmon. In the wild they eat krill which gives the flesh its pink color - much like flamingoes.) The more fatty farmed salmon has become much more popular with diners making chefs happy since it is much cheaper.

Tuna pose their own special problems, in particular the Bluefin, largest of all the tuna and unusual in that it is warm-blooded and therefore has to age longer, much like terrestrial animals before they are eaten. Another issue is mercury. Since underwater volcanoes and coal-fired energy plants emit mercury which accumulates in the top of the food chain (and Bluefin tuna which often reach 1,500 lbs. are a top predator) pregnant women are told not to eat Bluefin and everyone else is told no more than once-a-week for any kind of tuna. Some of the techniques to factory farm tuna are rather spectacular (I'll resist the temptation to reveal a spoiler but will only say they involve mackerel) and perhaps they might lessen the danger of eating mercury. Another reason to avoid fish.

The evolution of sushi is quite a story in itself, moving from rice being used to preserve fish (and smelling like the “vomit of a drunkard” and being thrown out, to a situation where the rice is more important than the fish. Sushi chefs apprentice themselves for years to learn the secrets of good sushi rice. (I have some Norwegian in my genes, but there is no way you will ever get lutefisk** - literally lye fish - past my nose.)

A major role of the sushi chef is to scope out the customers and adjust the servings and consistency and appearance to the particular customer's taste. I'll avoid a spoiler here and not reveal why it is that Americans will probably never get an authentic sushi; the kind they are served would be rejected as inedible by most Japanese.

I could go on and on. Fascinating book.

** Here’s what Garrison Keillor has to say about it:”Every Advent we entered the purgatory of lutefisk, a repulsive gelatinous fishlike dish that tasted of soap and gave off an odor that would gag a goat. We did this in honor of Norwegian ancestors, much as if survivors of a famine might celebrate their deliverance by feasting on elm bark. I always felt the cold creeps as Advent approached, knowing that this dread delicacy would be put before me and I'd be told, "Just have a little." Eating a little was like vomiting a little, just as bad as a lot.” ( )
  ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 21 (next | show all)
The book's real strength is Corson's skill at making the science of sushi interesting, presenting details in a playful and unintimidating manner for those of us without backgrounds in marine biology. He provides fascinating detail of a number of the most popular sushi toppings, imbuing his descriptions with just enough scientific trivia to capture the fascination of his mass-market target audience yet not give the impression he is watering down his presentations. Throughout the book, he covers topics such as the biology of tuna (which are, believe it or not, a warm-blooded fish); the composition of various types of muscles in fish and their differing flavor profiles; the anti-bacterial characteristics of sushi garnishes, such as shredded radish and perilla (shiso 紫蘇) leaves; and the (truly fascinating) life-cycle of eels.
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I am a fish, cuisine is my sea.
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Kate Murray's alarm clock went off at 5:30 a.m.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0060883502, Hardcover)

Everything you never knew about sushi—its surprising origins, the colorful lives of its chefs, the bizarre behavior of the creatures that compose it—is revealed in this entertaining documentary account by the author of the highly acclaimed The Secret Life of Lobsters.

When a twenty-year-old woman arrives at America's first sushi-chef training academy in Los Angeles, she is unprepared for the challenges ahead: knives like swords, instructors like samurai, prejudice against female chefs, demanding Hollywood customers—and that's just the first two weeks.

In this richly reported story, journalist Trevor Corson shadows several American sushi novices and a master Japanese chef, taking the reader behind the scenes as the students strive to master the elusive art of cooking without cooking. With the same eye for drama and humor that Corson brings to the exploits of the chefs, he delves into the biology and natural history of the creatures of the sea. He illuminates sushi's beginnings as an Indo-Chinese meal akin to cheese, describes its reinvention in bustling nineteenth-century Tokyo as a cheap fast food, and tells the story of the pioneers who brought it to America. He shows how this unlikely meal is now exploding into the American heartland just as the long-term future of sushi may be unraveling.

The Zen of Fish is a compelling tale of human determination as well as a delectable smorgasbord of surprising food science, intrepid reporting, and provocative cultural history.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:22:03 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

"In this richly reported documentary Corson, journalist and author of "The Secret Life of Lobsters," shadows several American sushi novices as well as a master Japanese chef to give readers an in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at the elusive art of cooking without cooking."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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